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Social and Political Theory


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Assessment: a 1000-word learning journal (20%) and 3000-word essay (80%)

Module description

You will be using theory-laden concepts throughout your studies: terms such as freedom, power and justice. The moment one pauses to explain what one means by them, one is theorising. Of course, a lot of the time we use these words without too much explication, and provided everyone feels pretty confident about taking their meaning for granted, that’s fine. But once in a while that tacit agreement breaks down. Then we need to think again. That’s when theory happens.

That’s why many of the significant works in this field are written around moments of historical crisis, when the assumptions that make sense of one’s social and political life fail. Machiavelli seeks to plumb the secrets of power, because Italy in his day is impotent in the face of foreign powers. Hobbes’s theory seeks to reconstruct unity in the face of civil strife. Burke seeks to articulate a vision of sustaining tradition just as the French Revolution ruptures it. Marx emerges from the aftermath of the French Revolution, surveys the suffering inflicted by the industrial revolution, and looks to another political revolution to redeem it. However abstract it may be, social and political theorising of any value is not divorced from reality, but seeks to re-engage with it on new terms; and however great its intellectual sophistication, it’s anything but bloodless. It’s driven by conviction, and it aims to make a difference.

This determines two defining features of the module:

  • First, we study these writings in the historical context in which they were written: to understand them adequately we must do our best to know what they were addressing and what they meant then. That’s why the module is organised chronologically.
  • Second, we’re also concerned with what they have to say to us now. Often the more deeply they engage with their own times, the more powerfully they speak to ours.

It’s important to take the module as a whole. You may end up writing about just three authors in your coursework essays. But implicitly or explicitly, these writers are engaged in a debate with each other across the centuries, even as we will engage in debate with their yet living voices. They illuminate each other, and they illuminate our times.

That’s why, though most of the sessions deal with particular thinkers, the module is punctuated with sessions on such themes as justice or freedom or the individual. These are moments at which to compare the positions of different writers, and to draw together the strands of the module and interweave them with our preoccupations in the present.